Graphic Scores

Accessible and inclusive music notation

What do you do when you have time on your hands and a glut of tomatoes? Make a tomato graphic score, of course!

Last summer during the 2020 Covid pandemic, my little veg patch produced an abundance of 3 different varieties of tomatoes, little Sungold cherry tomatoes, big fat Mallorcan ones, and some random ones which self-seeded from previous years’ crops.

I laid the semi-ripe tomatoes out in the sun to hasten ripening and amused myself making little impromptu graphic scores. Musical doodling using fruit.

Graphic scores  are a way of ‘writing down’ sounds .

They are a very accessible, creative and intuitive way to record and share ideas about sound: a non-conventional form of music notation. Different musical meanings can be assigned to shapes, colours, and lines or simply left to the interpretation of the player.

You can use anything to create graphic scores. I have tried sand (real, kinetic, edible), cardboard, bottle caps, vegetables, sticks and stones, leaves, flowers, pasta shapes, shells, even scrunched up balls of paper.

Runner beans are very useful vegetables. Different lengths represent different durations of sound
Pumpkin pulse! 3 beats in a bar represented in pumpkin form.

Graphic scores are very useful to children with special needs because we can tailor a graphic score to meet the needs of that individual.  You can make ones which can be contained within reach for people with restricted mobility or spread out over a wide area to promote movement for those who crave kinaesthetic input. Those who find deep pressure calming may like graphic scores made out of playdough which they can knead and form into shapes.

A 3D graphic score made from building blocks. Each knob is 1 count and blank spaces represent musical silences.

It allows children who have limited mobility, are non-verbal / speech-delayed / pre-literate  to express and share their ideas about sound and music. Visually-impaired learners are able to feel textures in 3D graphic scores and ‘read’ musical ideas much like they do with Braille text.

Pitch sirening activity - if you're handy with a hot glue gun, these coloured glue squiggles are very satisfying to trace and vocalise.
Tactile coloured squiggles (made with a hot glue gun) are very satisfying to trace whilst using vocal pitch to match the rise and fall of the line.

Although they are primarily visual and/or tactile, enticing possibilities are there to develop associations  with scent or taste as part of a more multi-sensory experience. For example:

            a spiral shape + lemon scent = fast music (whirlwind)

            a blobby shape + cinnamon = slow, chilled-out music

I can just feel a baking session coming on… flavoured cookie dough for making edible graphic scores, anyone?

Rhythm Circle Digital Games Project – Part 2

Helpful ideas from Early Years.

“Children should copy first and understand later”.

This statement from a well-meaning but pushy parent was one of the big factors which drove me to start Rhythm Circle.

About 5 years ago, I was struggling to engage with a new transfer student – a 5 year old boy who had a very poor understanding of musical elements despite having had a year’s worth of piano lesson.

I explained to his mother that I would like to spend some time helping her son gain had a better understanding of musical elements and notation instead of pushing on with pure pianistic skills. However, she disagreed strongly, and insisted that I taught him the piano by rote, saying “Children should copy first and understand later”.

This was immediately abhorrent to me as a teacher and as a parent: how could we hope to raise a new generation of critical thinkers if we began by bludgeoning and disrespecting the natural intellect and learning capacity of a child?

She was not entirely wrong, however. Children ARE natural and curious parrots – I suppose it is part of their survival instinct to copy the actions of their grown-ups. 

But educators and parents can do so much more to channel that natural instinct whilst nurturing the child’s intellectual faculties at the same time. The learning journey does NOT need to be dumbed down just because the learner is a child. This sentiment is felt strongly by Zoë Challenor , the founder director or B’Opera and a working partner on the Digital Games Project.

Zoë Challenor , in a performance of A Winter’s Tale, an opera specially created for babies and toddlers.

It was really a lucky accident that brought me and Zoë together in June 2019, and we have since found a shared ethos of bringing sophisticated and high-quality musical experiences to young children.

The incident with the pushy parent drove me to think about how I could encourage children to engage more with music: not just as operators of an instrument, but as curious explorers who WANTED to understand every aspect of sound.

Music is organised sound. There are several different elements which work together to create music. A small child experiencing the world is constantly bombarded with a constant influx of information. He/she learns gradually how to filter out less interesting or less important bits and to focus on specific elements.

To promote concentration amongst my youngest students, I embraced some commonly used concepts in Early Years education. One of the most useful was the Montessori practice of ‘isolation of quality’. This meant eliminating all other elements apart from the one which you wanted the child to learn. Very useful for children who are easily distracted as it promotes focus.

This idea was incredibly helpful in my work with neurodiverse children: one of the common characteristics shared by those who have learning differences is that they experience sensory overload, and do not have the ability to filter out less important information.

Isolation of quality : only blue plastic milk bottle caps which are identical in size and shape have been used. The only different element present is visual: the note value symbols

Whilst recording musical examples for the Rhythm Circle Digital Games Project, this meant recording the same piece of music played in different ways to demonstrate the difference between loud and quiet instead of two different pieces of music which demonstrated the same thing. This was particularly important as chords are often mistakenly associated with loud music and single notes with quietness.

When choosing shapes to use in Dynamic Dots, a graphic score activity , this meant using different sizes of a single shape , colour and material.   The size of that shape is the single changing element which corresponded to the ‘size’ of a sound.

Learning by exploratory play was also another idea from Early Years education which was particularly useful. For me, this concept kicked of the creation of many musical games and activities (e.g musical versions of Bingo, Tic Tac Toe, Bowling).

Scientists tell us that when knowledge or skills have recently been learnt, new neural pathways are created in the brain. Repetition of that knowledge strengthens the pathways and aids long term retention. Since, children find games and activities fun they will want to keep repeating those games. So musical games REALLY help learners retain music knowledge !

B’Opera’s presence and support in this project has been a strong reminder about respecting the learning journeys of our youngest members of society – both in the depth and breadth of experiences offered to them. So many neurodiverse children have delayed learning and it is crucial that the Digital Games Project understands how to leverage good Early Childhood working practices to support their learning.

In the next blog, I will be charting my digital working partnership with Trifort Solutions.

Musical Messy Play

I’d like to introduce my son who goes by the nom de plume ‘Stumpy’ (before we had to put his name down on the birth certificate, this was actually what we called the poor child).

Stumpy loves words: the sound of them , their rhythm, singing them, mangling them, making up new words. He also likes paint, mud, orange juice , coins and ice cubes. Especially when allowed to mix them all up. He does NOT like being taught how to sing words. Or what colours to use when he wants to paint. Or just how much water he should use to make a muddy puddle. Or how to form a triangle using coins

Left triangle: made by me. Right triangle:  made by Stumpy  the minimalist
Left triangle: made by me. Right triangle: made by Stumpy the minimalist

Stumpy taught me one very valuable lesson: that sound is just a manipulable – just like paint or mud. And it made him very, very happy to be able to explore and experiment with his favourite materials.

Occasionally, he would become curious about my musical work materials and ask to play with them. I would then bring them out to show him and he would immediately touch them or try and make patterns with them. 3D graphic scores are very popular with Stumpy. Big circles = big sounds, little circles = quiet sounds.

When he asked to play with my bottle caps note values, he got very excited at being able to recognise the letters ‘p’ and ‘o’ (ie. minims and semibreves).

Me (jumping at the chance to pass on some musical knowledge): “Look, this symbol is for a 2 count sound and this is for a 4 count sound”.

Stumpy : “No, Mummy it says ‘poo’. Look, you can make many, many ‘poo’s!”

Music at Home

A musical colleague recently asked me what I do as a musical mum with my child (I have a 4 year old son who recently started school).

My first thought was “Ummmm…….nothing?” But then I thought about it properly and this is the reply I sent to her:

Since my son loves exploring things and experimenting to see what effects he can create, I prefer to let him take the lead in our joint musical experiences. He does not enjoy ‘organised’ musical activity with me but loves singing , making up little songs and sounds. My little one is a joyfully out-of-tune singer but has a great sense of pulse. He enjoys singing and accompanying himself by beating the pulse on a drum/ stomping/bopping to the beat. I guess that stems from being surrounded by so much music since he was in the womb. Throughout my pregnancy and up until he was 2, he was with me when I worked. He has spent countless hours sitting in a dance studio listening and watching whilst I played for ballet class ( possibly where he developed quite a strong sense of pulse??). We used orchestral music in rehearsals and he would nap in a sling whilst I worked, falling asleep hearing rich and complex music .

I’ve always wondered if watching dancers move in time to music has helped my son develop a kinaesthetic understanding of music…

In the car, we listened to Gene Vincent sing Be Bop A Lula on the radio and he said he liked it, and asked me what it was. When I told him, he kept asking for it on Youtube. When my sister got an Alexa, he learnt how to ask for it and would dance to it. Sometimes, he would tell me if he liked /did not like a piece of music which was on the radio and we would talk about the mood of the music.

As for instruments, I’ve learnt to leave them lying around the house on convenient places. He likes trying out sounds on the piano, ringing the ‘dinner bell’ at mealtimes, drumming on a cake tin to keep himself in time when singing. For me, I guess enabling these musical things to happen are more important than music lessons because my child is learning to listen critically

Our dinner bell